Illustrating the Insectopedia: PW talks with Hugh Raffles

by Parul Sehgal — Publishers Weekly, 2/15/2010

Anthropologist (and recent Whiting Award winner) Raffles traveled to five continents to create an anecdotal encyclopedia of insects and how they evoke our most primal feelings in Insectopedia (Reviews, Dec. 21).

What a beautiful looking book! How did you decide on the form?

I wanted to make this a pleasurable experience for the reader—and I don’t mean just that reading it make them happy. I wanted people to have a complex range of pleasures, and insects are good for that because they’re so numerous, come in so many types, and figure in our lives in so many different ways. The encyclopedic structure was for a couple reasons: I wanted to make a joke about the impossibility of capturing all of nature in a book. And I wanted to write in a constraining form. I thought it would push me to do more interesting things—and it did.

But why insects?

Because they’re such different beings. They’re difficult to humanize and very few are domesticated. They’re unknown—not only in that so many are unclassified—but we don’t know how to think about them. But at the same time they elicit these ambivalent and very intense feelings in people. And they’ve been taken up metaphorically—especially the social insects. Some insects—like lice and cockroaches—are associated with vermin and consequently, repugnance. Other insects—butterflies for example—are strongly associated with beauty. In Japan, dragonflies are important symbolically for expressing certain emotions.

You describe one Japanese subject as being so passionate about insects that he’s developed “mushi” or insect-eyes—he perceives the world like an insect. Did anything like that happen to you?

Yes. I’ve become very careful around insects. I really don’t like killing or disturbing them. And I’ve become fascinated with understanding the world as other beings do. There are interesting speculations on what would determine your sense world when the way you see or hear is different. But with insects it’s impossible. A cockroach has something like 10,000 sensors on its antenna; we have no possibility of imagining it moving through the world. The only way I could get close to insect experience was to find individuals—scientists, cricket-fighting aficionados, crush freaks—who had these really close and particularly intense relationships with insects and try to get inside those relationships.

But there’s humility in admitting that we can’t understand insects on their own terms.

Humility is hugely important to me. I do think the book calls for people to start from a position of not knowing rather than assuming they do, which is usually the case. We ask animals to demonstrate their competence to us rather than accepting that animals have competencies we can’t begin to understand.

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